August 12, 2013
Of Rice and Men
TEL AVIV--When I was a kid in post-Revolutionary Iran, we were subjected to repeating a variety of hateful chants in school against the U.S. and Israel, most notably, "Death to America!" and "Death to the Zionists!" When a few of us began expressing concern to our teachers and administrators about whether we were "bad" for cursing these states (none of us had ever even met an American or an Israeli), we were given incredible responses. One teacher reassured us that Americans and Israelis were like the tiny bugs that creep into rice and contaminate the whole bag of grains, ruining it forever. As Persians take their rice very seriously, this was a heinous claim indeed. Another top administrator asked us not to worry about such things and announced to our first-grade class that "When you wish death upon the Americans and Zionists, you are not wishing any harm to come to any people that live there, per se. You are only rightfully advocating for the destruction of a regime." We all breathed a sigh of relief, believed him, and went on with our chants, even though most of us were Jewish. I for one believed his explanation so much that I developed a personal disdain for the King of Israel (I was five and had no grasp of a Jewish State, much less its leadership). Of course, the irony that years later, I would be a proud American and a staunch supporter of Israel was never lost upon me.
This isn't a blog post about death chants and brainwashed first graders. It's a brief commentary about people. From our vantage point in the comfort of Los Angeles, we can try to understand the unfairly intense threats that Israelis face, but these threats are mostly delivered to us in neatly-packaged sound bites about "the threat of a nuclear Iran," imagined scenarios of Israel being "wiped off the map," and so on.
I've spent roughly the past four weeks in this extraordinary country, thanks to the amazing work of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Sachlav, which gave me the honor of staffing a Birthright trip for forty young local Jews, mostly Iranian-Americans whose families fled Iran and settled in LA decades ago. Most of the participants had never been to Israel, and most were also fulfilling the wishes of their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, who had never seen Israel with their own eyes, either. We lived, ate, and breathed Israel for 10 meaningful, intense days. Everything that they had seen or heard in the news about this country was irrelevant from the moment that they set foot here and experienced being in Israel. Towards the end, once the glare of the desert sun had subsided over the hypnotic blue hues of the Dead Sea and its colorful visitors—average, loud Israelis and excited, quieter tourists whose minds were a million miles away from hate and rockets and nukes--one student on our Birthright trip grew silent, looked around him, sighed deeply, and suddenly asked me, "Who would want to wipe this off the face of the earth?"
I see now why my school administrator in Iran rationalized that hateful death chants don't hurt people, but rather hurt "regimes." It was the only way to have convinced us to have continued singing, chanting, thinking, and hating—by dehumanizing Americans and Israelis. It was so much easier to have believed that we were cursing terrible regimes—and not people…not fathers walking their children to the park in Tiberias, elderly men with long memories and strong coffees sitting in cafes in Jerusalem , or immature teenagers living out their summer dreams in the cold malls and hot beaches of Tel Aviv.
I believe that the single greatest element that keeps those whose hearts and minds hate Israel from ever visiting this country and seeing it for themselves—is the hidden, yet nagging truth that they will see normal people here—humans being and doing—the humanization of the heart as it watches "the enemies" go for a sunset run by the Yarkon River or walk with a cane along the stony streets of Tzfat.
This is a blog about people. People like Eyal, who accompanied our Birthright trip as a soldier-participant. Eyal is 23 and a member of the elite Israeli Navy Seals. His body and mind have been pushed to more limits than most of us will ever experience in our lifetimes, yet he is unimaginably kind, humble, and soft-spoken. Eyal hails from a farming village in the South, and his dream is to return to the South after his army service and be a farmer, build his future wife and kids a home, and work the land with the kind of happiness of spirit that comes with knowing that the whole world knocked at your door, yet you chose the peaceful tranquility of a farm in the South.
Then there's Sapir, a 21 year-old officer in the Israeli Air Force with incomparably blue eyes and the maturity of a 35 year old. He became a First Lieutenant at an age when most young Americans are experiencing Miller Lite rather than missiles. Sapir's service to his country has led him to commit to at least three extra years in the IAF. By the time he is done, he will have become a Captain, gained the maturity of a 60-year old, attended half a dozen more heavy metal concerts—his favorite pastime, and perfected his Borat accent—his second-favorite pastime. His dream is to enter a university, perfect his craft, and ultimately become an engineer.
Next there's Kalanit, a stylish, strikingly beautiful 30-year old. Unlike Eyal and Sapir, she is a first-generation Israeli. Her parents were Iranian Jews that escaped the country after the Revolution and made aliyah, effectively altering the life of every child, grandchild, and future great-grandchild in their family. Kalanit sings like a bird in Hebrew, speaks like a scholar in English, and enunciates every "R" in Persian in the most charmingly discordant way imaginable, due to the fact that she is a bona fide Israeli. Her senior thesis focused on the extraordinary events leading up to the Iranian Revolution. She served as a female combat soldier in an artillery division at a time when I was deeply invested in beer, rather than batteries. Her dream is to be a renowned jewelry designer and goldsmith. She is not sure of anything else in life except for the fact that she will succeed.
And finally, there's Ido, a 32-year old dark, handsome algorithm engineer whose grandparents were Yemenite Jews. His older sister is a doctor and his younger sister is an engineer—a virtual nachas factory of children that most Iranian Jews in Los Angeles can relate to. Ido served in the IAF during the Second Intifada and later received not only a Bachelor's, but also a Master's in Electrical Engineering from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. His home is filled with trophies from local and national pool tournaments; his cue rests comfortably in a case by his couch in a studio in the heart of Tel Aviv, minutes away from the public square where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 18 years ago. His dream is to work for Google, find peace of mind, master the art of salsa dancing, and find a woman that makes jachnun as well as, if not better, than his mother.
Each one comprises a bigger picture of the humanity and humility of Israel. Each one embraces responsibility and has perhaps even an overdeveloped sense of service. Each one welcomes the end of a workweek with a day at the beach and a night at the bar. And each one knows exactly who was just elected president of Iran, and the new president's background and stance on major issues concerning the Middle East. When you live in Israel, you remember the human element of people, but you also keep your eyes on the regime.
30 YEARS AFTER is the nation's leading Iranian-American Jewish civic action organization, based in Los Angeles with a chapter in New York. Founded in 2008 by a group of passionate young professionals, our mission is to promote the participation and leadership of Iranian-American Jews in American civic, political, and Jewish affairs.